WITH THE U.S. MARINES, Iraq - The sign along this desolate stretch of highway is bright blue. The lettering that spells "Baghdad" in both Arabic and English is white and clear. The traffic arrow on the sign points north.
For the Marines, it was a sight that brought a few cheers, some relief and new fears.
Baghdad is now just a short distance away. They had traveled more than 200 miles since leaving Kuwait one week ago. While going such a distance by car is not significant, for the Marines - a military force traditionally used near shore, not so far inland - this was a historic achievement.
"We went farther and faster than anyone ever expected," said Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. But the aggressive drive north has come at a price. Stretched out along a partially constructed highway leading north to Baghdad, the Marines were pushed almost beyond their resources.
There has been a shortage of food, water and fuel during the past week because the Marines moved so far ahead of their supply trucks. In the past 48 hours Marines started sharing their Meals Ready to Eat, eating crackers and M&Ms; for breakfast, scrounging for a burrito or a slice of wheat bread. Sleep has lasted no more than an hour or two a night.
The amphibious assault vehicles that carried the Marines this far have been breaking down, and some have been abandoned by the side of the road. One day last week, only seven of a Marine company's 12 vehicles were working, and mechanics worked frantically through the night. A sandstorm disoriented the entire column. An ambush by the Iraqi army left one Marine dead.
Accidents, however, have been responsible for more casualties than has combat. One officer sleeping outside was killed when he was crushed to death by a military plow. A second was seriously wounded in the same accident. At least two Marines have been wounded by stepping on bomblets - dropped several days before by U.S. forces on land once occupied by the Iraqis.
After they arrived this far north on Thursday, there was little time for rest. Mundy's regiment helped lead a punishing attack against Iraqi fedayeen
An Iraqi civilian had stepped forward and told a Marine that the irregulars had gathered in a soccer stadium near Diwaniyah, where they were organizing attacks on U.S. troops.
The intelligence was the key to ordering airstrikes by fighter planes and Cobra attack helicopters on the stadium and other targets, including several Iraqi tanks and troop carriers.
It was an impressive show of combined Marine forces. On land, reconnaissance teams selected targets. In the sky, the Cobra helicopters prowled over the farmland and released Hellfire missiles. The jet fighters - with no anti-aircraft threat from the Iraqis - did lazy loops in the sky before dropping bombs. The explosions shook the ground and created black clouds visible from miles away.
Although successful, the attacks were often constrained by women and children forced in front of the paramilitary groups as human shields.
"Both the Baath Party and the fedayeen have been putting people between a rock and a hard place, forcing them at gunpoint to fight the Americans," said Capt. Ethan Bishop, commander of India Company. "The problem is that if they fight the Americans, they'll die. If they choose not to fight, they'll die."
Like many Marines, Bishop was surprised by the Iraqis' willingness to fight. It may be a long fight to Baghdad.
"I really don't know what to expect during the months ahead. I'm a little surprised that the capital would have collapsed earlier," Bishop said.
Members of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines meanwhile were stopped for a rest near Diwaniyah, and prepared to close the distance - if asked - to Baghdad.
Pfc. Justin Fortney, 20, of Pasadena, Md., spent yesterday morning blowing the dust off his machine gun and recounting the events of the last week.
Fortney's amphibious assault vehicle drove into a ditch during an ambush by the Iraqi army. Iraqis fired rocket-propelled grenades and showered bullets on his platoon's vehicle, packed with 20 Marines. They crawled out and defended it until the firefight was over. No one from his platoon was injured.
Yesterday, he was still coming to terms with how lucky he was to be alive.
"Your mom tells you that when you are young you don't see the fear. You don't see what can go wrong. I know that we could get hurt, but I don't think about it," said Fortney, his face muddied from spending the last week sleeping outside in a trench. "I don't think it will all settle in until I get home."
Fortney says that the time now passes more slowly.
To help the hours pass in his foxhole, he thinks about home, his girlfriend and all the stories he'll be able to tell his family and friends. He has already told his parents in Pasadena what they should serve at his welcome-home party.
A smile grew on his face just reciting the menu: Snickers bars, Papa John's pizza, his grandmother's apple pie and a box of glazed doughnuts.
Yesterday morning, however, he had to settle for his share of a Meal Ready to Eat for breakfast: a foil bag of spiced apples.
"I think I'm losing weight here," he said.